Yungang Grottoes

The Yungang Grottoes are ancient Chinese Buddhist temple grottoes near the city of Datong in the province of Shanxi. They are excellent examples of rock-cut architecture and one of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China. The others are Longmen and Mogao.

The site is located about 16 km west of the city of Datong, in the valley of the Shi Li river at the base of the Wuzhou Shan mountains. They are an outstanding example of the Chinese stone carvings from the 5th and 6th centuries. All together, the site is composed of 252 grottoes with more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes. In 2001, the Yungang Grottoes were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


After the decline of the Jin Dynasty, the northern parts of China came under the control of the Northern Wei. They made the city of Pingcheng, now known as Datong, their capital. Due to its promotion, Pingcheng saw an increase in construction work. The Northern Wei early adopted Buddhism as their state religion. Buddhism arrived in this location via travel on the ancient North Silk Road, the northernmost route of about 2600 kilometres in length, which connected the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an to the west over the Wushao Ling Pass to Wuwei and emerging in Kashgar before linking to ancient Parthia.

The work on the first period of the thread lasted until 465 AD. From about 471 AD, during the second phase of construction, which lasted until 494 AD, the twin caves, as well as several other caves were built under the supervision of and with the support of the imperial court. Imperial patronage ended AD 494 with the transition to the new court Wei Luoyang Capital. The rest of the cave was under the private patronage for the third period of construction, which will last up to 525 years when construction came to a final end because of the uprisings in the region.

Since the end of the works, the sandstone of the grottoes has been exposed to heavy weathering. The ensuing centuries therefore saw several attempts to preserve the caves and to repair sustained damage. During the Liao Dynasty the caves saw some renewing of statues and the buildup of the "10 temples of Yungang" from 1049 to 1060, that were meant to protect the main caves. However, they were destroyed again just some 60 years later in a fire. The wooden buildings extant in front of caves 5 and 6 were constructed in 1621, during the early Qing Dynasty. Since the 1950s, cracks in the sandstone have been sealed by grouting, and forestation has been implemented in an effort to reduce the weathering due to sandstorms.

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